In general I try to avoid being crass but in this case I can't help it - the only way I can introduce my thoughts on comedian David Cross' new movie Hits is with an old joke that's pretty vulgar. So here goes:
A crusty old man walks up to a young ingenue at a fancy dinner party and asks her: would you sleep with me for a hundred million dollars? She thinks about it for a second and then replies: yes, I would. The old man raises his eyebrow, leans in closer and then conspiratorially whispers into her ear: would you sleep with me for a dollar? This immediately angers the young woman who screams: what kind of woman do you think I am? To which he responds: oh, we've established what kind of woman you are, now we're just haggling over the price.
Now, I wasn't thinking about that joke during Hits because it is a film that is overly concerned with sex or about money. In fact, Hits isn't about either of those things - it is about fame. It concerns three groups of people who all have their own reasons for needing attention: there's Dave, a small town crank who is publicly fighting with his local city council over some potholes in front of his house; some Brooklyn hipsters who realize that with a bit of clever editing Dave's kooky antics can be turned into popular internet memes; and then there's Dave's daughter Katelyn, who desperately wants to be a star on reality television. The whole movie is designed to indict our surface level society, and to disparage all of the Americans who naively believe their talents should be celebrated on the biggest possible stage...
But it is very hard to take the movie's critique of fame seriously when basically everyone involved is themselves famous. Don't get me wrong - most of them are left-of-center famous, and they seem to have approached their careers with some basic level of integrity. For example, Matt Walsh (who plays Dave) has been acting in television and film for nearly twenty years, and while I suspect that most pop culture literate people would recognize his face I doubt that most of them could be able to come up with his name because he has never really gone after the sort of dumb over-the-top comedy roles that turn solid performers into superstars. He's a lot classier than the racist crazy man he's portraying.
Still, you can't get around the fact that everyone involved in Hits must have made a conscious decision at some point in their lives to seek a career in the performing arts, and that means that they, too, have some core part of themselves that prioritizes public attention and affection over other more easily acquired needs... Which means they are just like the people they are mocking. Their motives might be more pure, but we've already established what type of person they are, and now we're just arguing over the price.
Look: I recognize that you don't lose your ability to critique society the instant you become famous. Writer / director David Cross has every right to challenge the modern trend of sex tapes creating overnight stars if he wants to. I'm not even accusing him of being a hypocrite since he has worked hard for many years to express a specific point of view through his art, which makes him distinctly different from your average reality TV show contestant. (Although the fact that he did star in all three Alvin and the Chimpmunks movies - even the incredibly maligned "squeakquel" - means that he is kind of living in a glass house when it comes to taking potshots at people who are willing to debase themselves in distasteful projects for dubious reasons.)
No, my problem with Hits is that it is utterly lacking empathy. Nevermind generalized "at the end of the day we're all humans" empathy, its non non-stop parade of delusional fuck-ups and bitter malcontents keeps the film from even plucking the low hanging fruit off of the "we all want to be performers" tree. It's a cynical brew that I found hard to swallow; its own bitterness keeps it from being coherent. Hits seems to be suggesting that everyone in our entire society is hungry for the wrong things for the wrong reasons, which is a bit much, since many people are clearly not hungry for fame, and others - presumably including Cross and Co. themselves - are hungry for fame for (theoretically) correct reasons.
But even if I did buy into Hits' central thesis I would have to ask: why now? Is there anyone who doesn't know that The Voice (and other reality TV shows of its ilk) are falsely encouraging sad people to debase themselves? Do we really need another video that is trying to prove that the internet is a little over eager to humiliate harmless fools? Part of the reason why Hits' generalized misanthropy annoyed me so much was that it seemed to be steering into our society's crassness instead of correcting it. I think most reasonable people already know that our media landscape is full of cynical content, and adding one more bit of toxic finger-pointing to the long list of accusatory diatribes isn't going to help anyone. If anything it is just contributing to the generalized sourness that we're already swimming in.
That combination of bad intentions and muddled thoughts would be a hard sell for me in the best of circumstances; I understand why people like Cross hold would-be Real Housewives in such disdain, but I'm quite fine with leaving them alone to live their lives as long as they leave me alone to live mine. But the circumstances here are far from the best - Hits just isn't funny enough to mask the taste of its bitterness, nor is it smart enough to cover up how well trod this territory is. Ultimately, Hits' likeable cast of performers can't turn the poorly conceived script into anything that's enjoyable, much less philosophically engaging. I understand why a million dollar prostitute might call a dollar prostitute cheap, but at the end of the day they need to have enough self-awareness to know their higher price-tag doesn't automatically afford them the right to be indignant.
Winner: The Cat